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November 17, 2008

NICU 101 for Family and Friends

1_2 November has always been one of my favorite months, it holds my birthday, Thanksgiving and now a cause I am incredibly passionate about, Prematurity Awareness. Unfortunately, it's a cause that many people, moms included, are unaware of. I know it's something that never crossed my mind. I had a perfect pregnancy, was in the best shape I've ever been, did all the research, read all the books - happily skipping over those parts about babies arriving early, because, of course, that would never happen to me. Except that it did.

At the close to a perfectly normal day, I celebrated my 28 weeks and promptly went into labor. Our plans for a peaceful home birth were exchanged for a speedy drive to the nearest hospital where, within an hour or so of convincing everyone I was in labor, our son was born.  We quickly, without any choice of our own, entered a world we never imagined. Questions loomed that we'd never considered. Dreams died as we hoped and prayed that our boy would be ok.  My own body fought the joy that was birth with the fear that was him being here too soon and the emptiness I felt not having him within me anymore, of not knowing 12 more weeks. We kicked into primal parenting, survival mode, we trusted and questioned an learned to advocate for our boy.  We pulled through.

Yet while we dove through the vast resources available to us as sudden "preemie parents", we saw everyone around us struggle with what to do, where to be, how to help, how act around us.             

In the moment the last thing we had the energy to do was to guide them and of course, the most important thing was that they cared, they prayed, they were there if we needed them. But with 1 in 8 babies across the country being born prematurely chances are that someone you know and love will have an early bird, that someone may even be you. Wouldn't it be nice to have a few pointers? All I have is my experience and that of some other preemie mama's but consider this the quick and dirty guide to NICU 101 for those one degree removed-

  • To gift or not to gift? People love to give and we love to received but this is one area that can be hard when the new baby is a tiny sick baby. While clothes in normal newborn sizes will eventually fit they might be stab in the heart for Mama. A preemie sized something could be nice but many babies can't wear clothes in the hospital anyway. If you'd like to give something offer your time or a treat for mom and dad (food, books and music are great to get one through long bedside vigils) or just wait until babies homecoming.
  • Updates? Everyone will want to know how baby is doing and how mom and dad are dealing with things but having lots of people call wanting to know what's going on can be overwhelming. Offer to set up a phone chain so the parents can call one person who can then pass on the news. We chose to start a blog for our boy and were able to update it from a computer in the hospital cafeteria. You could offer to set up a blog or handle updates for the family. Most importantly do not call exasperated or with worry if you don't get a call.
     
  • When Can I See Baby? I've found preemie parents are divided on this one. Some like visitors, some would rather they stay away. Most NICU's have rules on who can visit and when, along with how many visitors can be present at a time, so you can start there. The best thing is to offer to come but don't be offended if the parents say no. Make it clear you want to see the parents too and are happy to sit with mom in the waiting room, not just get in to see baby. They'll need all the support they can get.
  • Happy Homecoming? Our son was in the NICU for 6 weeks, 44 loooong days. Some babies come home sooner, some are in for months. Coming home with a new baby, no matter how long they've been around, is like, well, coming home with a new baby! Unfortunately, many preemie parents find that by time they make it home the novelty has worn off for everyone else. If nothing else, this is the time to bring gifts and dinner, to offer to wash dishes or sit and chat. This is cause for celebration!
  • Can You Come Out to Play? Homecomings are often just the beginning of what is still a long battle for baby. Some babies are still very sick or face lifelong disabilities while some come home perfectly healthy. Either way, these parents have seen their babies sick and only want them well, so expect a degree of paranoia. Some is emotional overflow, some is honest concern. Try not to be offended is Mama is cautious of other people holding baby or declines invitation after invitation to crowded events. It will pass, I promise.

Of course there's more. I could break down details and tell so many stories but even more important than any list or tip is letting the parents know that you're there to support and love them through as a friend or mom or sister or whatever, just as you were before baby arrived.

Original Chicago Moms Blog post. Ashlee Allen also blogs daily at Mama's Nest.

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